Students express themselves through performing arts

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Julie Pappas has been performing since she was seven years old. Her first performance was in the local community theater in her hometown. Although school was a difficult place for Julie while growing up, she danced in high school and participated in a performing arts group every summer.

“[Performing arts] gave me life. It gave me joy. The arts have given me confidence and courage as a person.”

Now, she uses her gifts as a performing arts teacher at Fortune Academy in Indiana where she’s been teaching for 11 years. It’s not just her experience as a performer that makes her a great fit at Fortune, it’s her personal experience with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When they hired Julie, they placed her in charge of a newly created drama department for all grade levels.

Fortune Academy is a school for language-based learning differences. The school is designed to provide an environment that nurtures each child’s development, builds upon his/her individual strengths, and offers remediation in areas of weakness. Students have an individualized education program where the institution works with each student’s particular challenge including dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and more. The academy has about 90 students and class sizes are limited to six students. Since the school year began, classes have been in person with masks and strict protocols. This impacted the after-school program that Julie created, therefore limiting the number of participants, and holding rehearsals outdoors instead of in a classroom or auditorium.

Meeting students where they are and being able to educate and help other students with ADHD is a dream come true for Julie.

“Teaching was a platform to use my creative skills.”

Julie created an after-school program with three major performances: Take One, Take Two, and Take Three. Take One, which features her Junior High students, was the first performance to adapt to the new protocols due to COVID-19, but Julie was determined to make sure it happened.

“These [performances] give the students a sense of value and a sense of purpose. To stop it would take out a lot of energy.”

Julie decided to do a socially distanced performance outside. The program centered around Shel Silverstein’s poetry from his book “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” and others. First, the students presented a poem, then they performed slam poetry based on the poem, and finally they acted out a scene focused on a theme. Silverstein poems featured in the program include: “Invitation”; “Alpha Balance”; “Hector the Connector”; “No Difference”; and “The Garden.”

They created a stage at the edge of a sidewalk. The students were socially distanced with their own stools. The audience was spread out in lawn chairs or parked around the sidewalk. The weather was perfect and the students rocked their performance.

Not only was their first performance Take One a success, but Julie noticed how these types of events benefited the students.

“Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of kids go through my program and I’ve seen them transform. The first thing I notice is they grow in confidence.”

Julie explained how drama can be the perfect fit for students with learning-based language differences. In her experiences and observations, students with ADHD can feel empowered to use their energy in this format. Students with autism can improve their social skills through drama, which helps them discover an appropriate way to express themselves. Students with learning disabilities/dyslexia can learn vocabulary through memorization. All students, regardless of their disabilities, often find creative ways to use the performing arts to learn confidently. To believe in a student – to give them a platform to try it out – is transformative, and it impacts them academically.

Other teachers who observed the program were proud of specific students who really shined using the performing arts. Students who were shy and reserved during rehearsal would “ooze with expression” during the performance. Parents were excited to see their children blossom on the stage.

Take One was not an easy program to prepare. Even without the challenges of a pandemic, preparing students came with its own challenges. Organization, executive skills, remembering lines – these are all factors that students must work through. Rehearsals presented challenges for Julie’s students that needed to be addressed, but by meeting with them where they are, they were ready for curtain call.

Perfection is not required. As with all of us, “it is okay if they’re off pitch, if they miss a line, or if they forget something.”

One way Julie helps her students through their personal challenges is through understanding of their disability through her own experiences.

“I have ADHD. I get it. You will not be perfect. You have a message and the message will be clear. That’s what matters.”

The message of the program was recognizing, accepting, and celebrating people who may learn or be different from us. The students were proud of their performance. It was clear in their energy. They were talking to each other, smiling and hopping around putting things away.

Julie’s ultimate goal is to show her students with learning challenges can meet expectations and are valuable participants in the school and community. They are a valuable part of our society and they have important things to say to make our world a better place. Teaching them that they have a voice gives them value and gives them confidence and courage to make a difference in the world.

“We need people who are willing to be courageous, to step out and step up, and do the work. These kids deserve a chance to say what they can say in our world. We’re not going to give up. We’re going to persevere.”

Julie is now preparing for her next after-school program with her high school students in January for Take Two.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

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